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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Melissa Kumle-Hammes
Metropolitans, counties and regions are combining resources to improve public safety communications systems. This type of collaboration illustrates the evolution of public safety communications from individualized systems to consolidated systems. Within this framework, consolidation refers to a merger of two or more public safety dispatch centers (PSDCs).
Today, consolidated PSDCs are progressively significant and extensive due to budget restrictions, emerging technology, federal regulations and the emphasis on emergency response interoperability since Sept. 11, 2001. Consequently, PSDCs are transforming into multifaceted agencies responsible for 9-1-1 services and radio communications for multiple emergency agencies within a region.
While hierarchies, command and control tend to overtake public safety management strategies, recent research supports network governance, or collaborative governance, as complimentary to the emergency response. Specifically, Donald P. Moynihan, as stated in his Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory article titled “The Network Governance of Crisis Response: Case Studies of Incident Command Systems,” instructs that network governance enhances emergency response in multiple ways without sacrificing the stability of unified command. As PSDC consolidations continue to occur, stakeholders can look to academic research to acquire strategies to manage and nurture their regional collaboration. Here are five practical strategies for managing PSDC networks:
1. Recognize that consolidated PSDCs necessitate network governance.
“Networks are structures of interdependence involving multiple organizations or parts thereof,” according to Laurence J. O’Toole, Jr., in a Public Administration Review article titled “Networks and Networking: The Public Administrative Agenda.” O’Toole also notes that within networks “one unit is not merely the formal subordinate of the others in some larger hierarchical arrangement.”
Stakeholders should understand the multitude of relationships between all agencies in the collaborative PSDC network. For example, if a PSDC stakeholder (i.e., police or fire department) changes an individual agency policy related to radio communication, they need to consider the impact of that change on every other stakeholder involved. Many consolidated PSDCs create a user or stakeholder advisory committee to facilitate this type of network governance.
2. Strengthen the network by building processes to overcome any individual agency barriers.
Jane Fountain, as stated in her guidebook Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers, advises that stakeholders in collaborative networks need to “build capacity across boundaries through rigorous structures and processes with the extra commitment and coordination required to work across agency boundaries.” Specifically, once stakeholders construct their PSDC network, the job is not complete. The creation of processes to permeate cross-agency barriers or solve cross-agency problems will augment transparency, accountability and responsiveness.
For example, if a stakeholder places new demands that produce additional costs for a consolidated PSDC, a process should be in place for PSDC management to easily request or receive additional funding to cover the costs of such demands. Or, alternatively, PSDC management may be able to deny new demands or suggest alternative solutions without fear of ruining any stakeholder relationships.
3. Promote involvement in networks by highlighting key benefits.
Robert Agranoff, in his Public Administration Review article titled “Inside Collaborative Networks: Ten Lessons for Public Managers,” outlines several value-added network benefits including stakeholders garnering enhanced collaborative skills, agencies acquiring more and better information, stronger inter-agency processes and measurable results. Not all consolidated PSDC stakeholders will immediately see the value in nurturing their network, especially if their network involvement is not voluntary. Active stakeholders need to entice others by emphasizing the value-based benefits.
4. Embrace the flexibility of a network.
Public safety communications is a dynamic field and networks allow stakeholders to be change-ready. “The flexibility of relationships can be highly advantageous in performing tasks, such as emergency services,” according to Agranoff, “networks need to be relatively stable at their core, while maintaining flexibility, especially at the periphery.”
Within the context of consolidated PSDCs, a healthy network means all stakeholders know their core roles but also accept roles that may be beyond their own interests and for the collective good during times of emergency. This type of flexibility is crucial to effective emergency response.
5. Enhance trust between all stakeholders.
Trust is an essential component of networks. In several cases studies, Moynihan discovered that trust within collaborative relationships was the common theme in effective network governance during crisis responses. However, trust needs to be continuously facilitated due to the jurisdictional nature of emergencies.
For example, if a fire department forgoes building trust-based relationships with other stakeholders, they may place individual organizational objectives far above network goals. The result would be vulnerable coordination and cooperation during a crisis which may lead to scattered command, lack of accountability and slower response. In other words, Moynihan emphasized that, within regional collaborations, “trust and working relationships” facilitated heightened coordination and resource allocation and reduced network conflict.
Consolidated public safety dispatch centers (PSDCs) are a significant piece of building resilient regions. Even though the consolidation of PSDCs occur for many different reasons, the resulting collaborative network should be nurtured to ensure favorable outcomes. “[Networks] allow public agencies to manage public problems by leveraging expertise held outside its scope of authority,” according to Kimberley R. Insett et al., in a Journal of Public Administration article titled “Networks in Public Administration Scholarship: Understanding Where We Are and Where We Need to Go,” “[and] much of the research on collaboration has been optimistic about the quality and nature of resulting goods and services.”
Author: Melissa Kumle-Hammes, MPA, works for a Midwest-based consolidated dispatch center as a public safety communications professional and is a graduate student at Walden University, Ph.D. program in public policy and administration, emergency management specialization. Ms. Kumle-Hammes can be reached at [email protected].